From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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And all this explanation as our two youngsters are scooting through the dripping rain for Union Square.
As they sped across Fifth Avenue a long white seam flashed into view just beyond the Washington statue, and went like a dim streak sailing away up Fourth Avenue.
"There goes Twelve Truck!" panted Shorty, already half-winded in the fierce effort to keep up with Snipe's giant strides. "Seven Hose must be just ahead. Look out for Twenty-three now!"
Yes, out from Broadway, as he spoke, a little swarm of men and boys on the drag-ropes, another company came, hauling a bulky little red hand-engine, and went tugging in chase of the lighter hook and ladder. A minute's swift run brought the youngsters to the open square, another around to the broad space in front of the Everett, and there the misty atmosphere grew heavy and thick, and the swarm of scurrying men and boys breathed harder as they plunged into a dense drift of smoke. Just as our youngsters noted that the crowds were running eastward through Nineteenth Street, the old rallying cry of another company was heard, and a light hose carriage came bounding across the car-tracks from the direction of Broadway. Snipe by this time was a dozen yards ahead, and could not hear or would not heed the half-choking, warning cry of puffing little Shorty.
"Lay low, Snipe; that's the Metamora. Look out – look out for the – "
Too late! Half a dozen young fellows were sprinting along beside their pet hose carriage. No more were needed on the ropes, and as Shorty rounded the corner into Nineteenth Street and saw the flames bursting from the roof of a stable close to Lexington Avenue, he saw, too, with bursting heart, three of those young flankers spring up on the sidewalk in chase of long-limbed Snipe, saw one of them overtake him, lay sudden hand on his shoulder on one side and hurl him violently to the left, just in time to be tripped over the tangling foot of another and tumbled headlong into the reeking gutter, there to lie, stunned and almost senseless, till Shorty, raging, yet breathless and helpless, strove to lift his bleeding head upon his knee.
Bigger crowds ran to fires, big or little, in those days than now. The blaze which had well-nigh destroyed an old frame stable in Nineteenth Street that rainy Saturday afternoon before a single fire company reached the scene, and that drew to the spot in the course of half an hour at least twenty companies, – engine, hose, or hook and ladder, – would be handled now by one compact little battalion with one-tenth the loss, with no more than forty men, without an unnecessary sound, and in much less than half the time. Although aided by sympathizing hands, Shorty had barely time to get Snipe on his shaky legs and in the lee of a sheltering tree-box when another company came tearing around from upper Fourth Avenue, – their old friends of Zephyr Hose, – close followed by Engine 28, and Shorty lifted up his voice in a yodel that instantly brought two or three panting young fellows to his side, – big boys who had run with their pet company the half-mile from Twenty-eighth Street.Instant suspicion, mingled with wrath, gleamed in their eyes at sight of Snipe's pale face and bleeding temple. "Yes, the Hulker fellows!" sobbed Shorty, now half mad with indignation and excitement. "I saw just the two that did it. One of them belongs to the first nine of the Metamoras, – the juniors, – and had a row with Snipe the day of the match. Briggs was with them. Wait till we tend to Snipe, then we can fix him."
The youngster's heart was beating hard and savagely, for the outrage was brutal. There had been angry words between the rival clubs, the Uncas and the Metamora, the day of their great game, and hosts of other juniors had gathered about the wrangling nines, not utterly displeased at the idea of a falling out between two of the strongest and, as juniors went in those days, "swellest" organizations on the list. Then, as luck would have it, several of the older boys of both clubs were devoted followers, even "runners," of two rival hose companies, the Uncas almost to a man pinning their fortunes on the white Zephyr, whose home was but three short blocks above Pop's school, and one of whose active members, the son of a Fifth Avenue millionaire, was the biggest and oldest – and stupidest – of Pop's pupils, though not in the classical department. The Metamoras, in like manner, swore by the swell hose company of that name, whose carriage was housed on Fifth Avenue itself, diagonally over across the way from the impressively dignified and aristocratic brownstone mansion of the Union Club. And what Pop's boys, the First Latin, at least, were well-nigh a unit in condemning was that just two of their own number, residents of that immediate neighborhood, were known to be in league with the Metamora crowd, even to the extent, it was whispered, of secretly associating with the Hulkers, and by the Hulkers was meant a little clique led by two brothers of that name, big, burly young fellows of nineteen and eighteen respectively, sons of a wealthy widow, who let them run the road to ruin and bountifully paid their way, – two young scapegraces who were not only vicious and well-nigh worthless themselves, but were leading astray half a score of others who were fit for better things. No wonder the hearts of the Uncas were hot against them.
Into the area doorway of a neighboring dwelling, with faces of gloom, they had led their wounded comrade. Sympathizing, kind-hearted women bathed his forehead and smoothly bandaged it, even as the uproar without increased, and companies from far down-town kept pouring into the crowded street. By this time half a dozen streams were on the blaze and the black smoke had turned to white steam, but still they came, Gulick and Guardian, hose and engine, from under the Jefferson tower, and natty 55 Hose, – the "Harry Howards," – from away over near the Christopher ferry, and their swell rivals of 38, from Amity Street, close at the heels of Niagara 4, with her handsome Philadelphia double-deck engine, and "3 Truck," from Fireman's Hall, in Mercer Street, and another big double-decker, 11, from away down below the Metropolitan Hotel, raced every inch of the mile run up Broadway by her east side rival, Marion 9. Fancy the hundreds of shouting, struggling, excited men blocking Lexington Avenue and Eighteenth Street for two hundred yards in every direction from what we would call to-day a "two-hundred-dollar fire," and you can form an idea of the waste of time, money, material, and energy, the access of uproar, confusion, and, ofttimes, rowdyism, that accompanied an alarm in the days before the war. Remember that all this, too, might result from the mere burning out of a chimney or the ignition of a curtain in a garret window, and you can readily see why tax-payers, thinking men, and insurance companies finally decided that the old volunteer department must be abolished.
But until the war came on there was nothing half so full of excitement in the eyes of young New York, and Pop's boys, many of them at least, thought it the biggest kind of fun outside of school, where they had fun of their own such as few other boys saw the like of.
It was inside the school, however, on the following Monday morning, that the young faces were grave and full of import, for Snipe was there, still bandaged and a trifle pale, and Shorty, scant of breath but full of vim and descriptives, and time and again had he to tell the story of the Hulkers' attack to classmates who listened with puckered brows and compressed lips, all the while keeping an eye on two black sheep, who followed with furtive glances Snipe and Shorty wherever they went; and one of these two was the Pariah of the school.
The only son of a wealthy broker, Leonard Hoover at eighteen years of age had every advantage that the social position of his parents and a big allowance could give him, but he stood in Pop's school that saddest of sights, – a friendless boy. Always immaculately dressed and booted and gloved, he was a dullard in studies, a braggart in everything, and a success in nothing. For healthful sports and pastimes he had no use whatever. Books were his bane, and at eighteen he knew less of Latin than boys in the fourth form, but Pop had carried him along for years, dropping him back thrice, it was said in school traditions, until at last he had to float him with the First Latin, where he sat week after week at the foot of the class. It was said that between the revered rector of the school and the astute head of the firm of Hoover, Hope & Co. a strong friendship existed, but whatever regard "the Doctor" entertained for the father he denied the son. Long years of observation of the young fellow's character had convinced this shrewd student of boy nature that here was a case well-nigh without redeeming feature. Lazy, shifty, lying, malevolent, without a good word or kind thought for a human being, without a spark of gratitude to the father who had pulled him through one disgrace after another, and who strove to buy him a way through life, young Hoover was, if truth were confessed, about as abhorrent to the Doctor as he was obnoxious to the school. A plague, a bully, a tyrant to the little fellows in the lower classes, a cheat and coward among his fellows, filled with mean jealousy of the lads who year after year stepped over his head to the upper forms, stingy though his pockets were lined with silver, sneaking, for he was never known to do or say a straightforward thing in his life, it had come to pass by the time he spent his sixth year with Pop that Hoover was the school-boy synonym for everything disreputable or mean. And, as though the Providence that had endowed him through his father with everything that wealth and influence could command was yet determined to strike a balance somewhere, "Len" Hoover had been given a face almost as repellent as his nature. His little black eyes were glittering and beady, which was bad enough, but in addition were so sadly and singularly crossed that the effect was to distort their true dimensions and make the right optic appear larger and fuller than the left, which at times was almost lost sight of, – a strange defect that even Pop had had the weakness to satirize, and, well knowing that Hoover would never understand the meaning, had in a moment of unusual exasperation referred to him as "Cyclops," or Polyphemus, a name that would have held among the boys had it not been too classical and not sufficiently contemptuous. An ugly red birth-mark added to his facial deformity, but what more than anything else gave it its baleful expression was the sneer that never seemed to leave his mouth. The grin that sometimes, when tormenting a little boy, distended that feature could never by any possibility be mistaken for a smile. Hoover's white, slender, shapely hands were twitching and tremulous. New boys, who perhaps had to shake hands with him, said they were cold and clammy. He walked in his high-heeled boots in a rickety way that baffled imitation. He never ran. He never took part in any sport or game. He never subscribed a cent to any school enterprise, – base ball, cricket, excursion, or debate. He never even took part in the customary Christmas gifts to the teachers, for in the days of this class of Snipe's and Shorty's and others whose scholarly attainments should have won them first mention, there were some beloved men whom even mischief-loving lads delighted to remember in that way. One Christmas-tide Hoover had appeared just before the holiday break-up, followed by a servant in dark livery, a thing seldom seen before the war, and that servant solemnly bore half a dozen packages of which Hoover relieved him one at a time, and personally took to the desk of the master in each one of the five rooms, left it there without a word of explanation, but with an indescribable grin, bade the servant hand the sixth to the open-mouthed janitor, and disappeared. A perplexed lot were Pop's several assistants when school closed that afternoon. John, the janitor aforesaid, declared they held an informal caucus in the senior master's room (Othello was the pet name borne at the time by this gifted teacher and later distinguished divine), and that three of the number, who had smilingly and gracefully thanked the boys for the hearty little tribute of remembrance and good will with which the spokesman of the class had wished each master a Merry Christmas, declared they could accept no individual gift from any pupil, much less Hoover, and that he, John, believed the packages had been returned unopened.
And this was the state of feeling at the old school towards its oldest scholar, in point of years spent beneath its roof, on the bleak November morning following Snipe's and Shorty's disastrous run to the fire, when at twelve o'clock the First Latin came tumbling down-stairs for recess. Ordinarily they went with a rush, bounding and jostling and playing all manner of pranks on each other and making no end of noise, then racing for doughnuts at Duncan's, two blocks away. But this time there was gravity and deliberation, an ominous silence that was sufficient in itself to tell the head-master, even before he noted the fact that Hoover was lingering in the school-room instead of sneaking off solus for a smoke at a neighboring stable, that something of an unusual nature was in the wind.
"Why don't you go out to recess, Hoover?" said he, shortly. "If any lad needs fresh air, it's you."
No answer for a moment. Hoover stood shuffling uneasily at the long window looking out on Fourth Avenue, every now and then peering up and down the street.
Impatiently the master repeated his question, and then, sullen and scowling, Hoover answered, —
"I can have trouble enough – here."
"What do you mean?" asked Othello.
"They're layin' for me, – at least Snipe is."
"By Snipe you mean Lawton, I suppose. What's the trouble between you?" and the master sat grimly eying the ill-favored fellow.
"It's not a thing – I want to speak of," was the answer. "He knows that I know things that he can't afford to have get out, – that's all." Then, turning suddenly, "Mr. Halsey," said he, "there's things going on in this school the Doctor ought to know. I can't tell him or tell you, but you – you ask John where Joy's watch went and how it got there."
The master started, and his dark face grew darker still. That business of Joy's watch had been the scandal of the school all October. Joy was one of the leaders of the First Latin, a member of one of the oldest families of Gotham, and this watch was a beautiful and costly thing that had been given him on his birthday the year before. One hot Friday noon when the school went out to recess, Joy came running back up the stairs from the street below and began searching eagerly about the bookcases at the back of the long school-room. A pale-faced junior master sat mopping the sweat from his forehead, for the First Latin had executed its famous charge but two minutes before, and he had striven in vain to quell the tumult.
"What's the matter, Joy?" he asked. "I beg pardon. Mr. Joy, I should say. I wonder that I am so forgetful as to speak to a young gentleman in the First Latin as I would to boys in the other forms in the school."
At other times when the weakling who had so spoken gave voice to this sentiment it was the conventional thing for the First Latin to gaze stolidly at him and, by way of acknowledgment of the sentiment, to utter a low, moaning sound, like that of a beast in pain, gradually rising to a dull roar, then dying away to a murmur again, accentuated occasionally here and there by deep gutturals, "Hoi! hoi! hoi!" and in this inarticulate chorus was Joy ever the fugleman. But now, with troubled eyes, he stared at the master.
"My watch is gone, sir!"
"Gone, Mr. Joy? You terrify me!" said Mr. Meeker, whose habit it was to use exaggerated speech. "When – and how?"
"While we were – having that scrimmage just now," answered Joy, searching about the floor and the benches. "I had it – looked at it – not two minutes before the bell struck. You may remember, sir, you bade me put it up."
"I do remember. And when did you first miss it?"
"Before we got across Twenty-fifth Street, sir."
By this time, with sympathetic faces, back came Carey and Doremus and Bertram and others of the First Latin, and John, the janitor, stood at the door and looked on with puzzled eyes. It was not good for him that valuables should be lost at any time about the school. All four young fellows searched, but there was no sign. From that day to this Joy had seen no more of his beautiful watch. Detectives had sought in vain. Pawn-shops were ransacked. The Doctor had offered reward and Mr. Meeker, the master, his resignation, but neither was accepted.
And now Hoover, the uncanny, had declared he had information. It was still over an hour before the Doctor could be expected down from his morning's work at Columbia. The head-master felt his fingers tingling and his pulses quicken. He himself had had a theory – a most unpleasant one – with regard to the disappearance of that precious watch. He knew his face was paling as he rose and backed the downcast, slant-eyed youth against the window-casing.
"Hoover," said he, "I've known you seven years, and will have no dodging. Tell me what you know."
"I – I – don't know anything, sir," was the answer, "but you ask John. He does."
"Stay where you are!" cried the master, as he stepped to his desk and banged the gong-bell that stood thereon. A lumbering tread was heard on the stairway, and a red-faced, shock-headed young man came clumsily into the room. Mr. Halsey collared him without ado and shoved him up alongside Hoover. He had scant reverence for family rank and name, had Halsey. In his eyes hulking John and sullen Hoover were about on a par, with any appreciable odds in favor of the janitor.
"Hoover tells me you know where Joy's watch went and who took it. Out with the story!" demanded he.
"I d-don't," mumbled John, in alarm and distress. "I – I only said that – there was more'n one could tell where it went." And then, to Mr. Halsey's amaze and disgust, the janitor fairly burst into tears. For two or three minutes his uncouth shape was shaken by sobs of unmistakable distress. Halsey vainly tried to check him, and angrily demanded explanation of this womanish conduct. At last John seemed about to speak, but at that moment Hoover, with shaking hand, grabbed the master's arm and muttered, "Mr. Halsey, – not now!"
Following the frightened glance of those shifting eyes, Halsey whirled and looked towards the stairs. Then, with almost indignant question quivering on his lips, turned angrily on the pair. With a queer expression on his white and bandaged face, Snipe Lawton stood gazing at them from the doorway.
That famous charge of the First Latin is something that must be explained before this school story can go much further. To begin with, one has to understand the "lay of the land," or rather the plan of the school-room. Almost every boy knows how these buildings facing on a broad business thoroughfare are arranged: – four or five stories high, thirty or forty or fifty feet front, according to the size of the lot, perhaps one hundred to two hundred deep, with the rooms from basement to attic all about of a size unless partitioned off on different lines. In the days whereof we write Pop had his famous school in the second and third floors of one of these stereotyped blocks. Two-thirds of the second floor front was given up to one big room. A high wooden partition, glazed at the top and pierced with two doors, divided this, the main school-room, from two smaller ones where the Third and Fourth Latin wrestled with their verbs and declensions and gazed out through the long rear windows over a block of back-yards and fences. Aloft on the third floor were the rooms of the masters of the junior forms in English, mathematics, writing, etc. But it is with the second, the main floor and the main room on that floor, that we have to do. This was the home of the First Latin. It was bare as any school-room seen abroad, very nearly. Its furniture was inexpensive, but sufficient. A big stove stood in the centre of the long apartment, and some glazed bookcases between the west windows and against the south wall at the west end. A closet, sacred to Pop, was built against the north wall west of the stairway, which was shut off by a high wooden partition, reaching to the ceiling. A huge coat-rack stood in the southeast corner. A big open bookcase, divided off into foot square boxes for each boy's books, occupied the northeast corner, with its back against the northward wall. Six or seven benches abutting nearly end to end were strung along the south side, extending from the west windows almost to the coat-rack, the farthermost bench being at an obtuse angle. The bookbox, doors, and partitions were painted a cheerful lead color, the benches a deep dark green. So much for the accommodation of the lads. Now for their masters. On a square wooden dais, back to the light, was perched the stained pine desk at which from one-thirty to three each afternoon sat glorified Pop. Boy nor man ventured to assume that seat at other time, save when that front, like Jove, gleamed above the desk to threaten and command, and the massive proportions, clad in glossy broadcloth of scholarly black, settled into the capacious depths of that wicker-bottomed chair. In front of the desk, six feet away, the low stove, so often seasoned with Cayenne pepper, warmed the apartment, but obstructed not his view. At an equal distance beyond the stove was the table at which from nine A.M. to three P.M. sat the master in charge of the room, and thereby hung many and many a tale. It was a great big, flat-topped table, covered with shiny black oilcloth, slightly padded, and was so hollowed out on the master's side that it encompassed him round about like some modern boom defence against torpedo attack, and many a time that defence was needed. From the instant of the Doctor's ponderous appearance at the door law and disciplined order prevailed within this scholastic sanctuary, but of all the bear-gardens ever celebrated in profane history it was the worst during the one hour in which, each day from eleven to twelve, Mr. Meeker imparted to the First Latin his knowledge of the higher mathematics and endeavored to ascertain what, if any, portion thereof lodged long enough to make even a passing impression on the minds of that graceless assembly. There were other hours during which the spirit of mischief had its sway. There were other masters who found that First Latin an assemblage of youths who made them wonder why the Doctor had, after long, long years of observance, finally banished forever the system of punishment which was of the breech – the vis a tergo order, that was the mainstay of grammar-school discipline in Columbia's proud past; but it was left to Mr. Meeker to enjoy as did no other man the full development of a capacity for devilment, a rapacity for mischief never equalled in the annals of the school.
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